The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar talks to Karl du Fresne about his new book:
“I received my first lesson in American geography from Perry Como when I was about 8 or 9 years old,” writes Karl du Fresne, in the introduction to his book A Road Tour of American Song Titles – from Mendocino to Memphis. Over three unique road trips, accompanied by his wife Jolanta, du Fresne navigated the American heartland in search of the towns that featured in iconic songs like Wichita Linemen (Glen Campbell), El Paso(Marty Robbins) and Okie From Muskogee. Along the way he explores the rich musical connections of cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, San Jose, Las Vegas and Detroit and describes detours to some of-tracks locations like the gospel church in the Louisiana Delta where Jerry Lee Lewis first performed; or the location of the Tallahatchie bridge, made famous by Bobbie Gentry in Ode to Billie Joe or the Mississippi graveyard where Robert Johnson is argued to be lying under a pecan tree. Whilst a personal journey of indulgence, du Fresne couldn’t help embellishing his new travel book with musical history and trivia.
As one often does when testing the levels on the equipment at the start of an interview I make small talk while I fiddle with the equalizer on my smart phone recorder. “You’ve got a voice for radio.” “I’ve got a face for it, too. Actually that’s my brother Justin, who’s the radio announcer. Although, I’m gaining on him.” Quite true, writer Karl du Fresne will be well known to Dominion Post and Listener readers as the former editor of the former and a contributing freelance writer on the latter. He’s also penned The New Zealand Wine-Lover’s Companion,The Right to Know: News Media Freedom in New Zealand and a history of the Dominion and Evening Post (2007). He’s still at it, too, writing a number of regular columns for various national papers. du Fresne was one of the original ‘grumpy old men’, offering opinion pieces on issues of the day. He still proffers these from time to time but with the plethora of experts gobbling up column inches these days he reckons he’s just “one voice amongst many.” Mind you, he adds, print and online journalism is his day job. “This book’s been a bit of a self-indulgence – an opportunity to travel and explore the imaginary places of my youth as well.”
Ok, so road trips to the soul of American music, or any music, are not original. Most famously, U2 featured the experience their movie Rattle and Hum; Jack Kerouac (On The Road) wrote his classic account of the Beat movement against a backdrop of jazz, poetry and drugs; Billy Connoly has made a TV show; Chuck Klosterman (Killing Yourself To Live) took a ‘semi-true’ discovery adventure to the work places of Buddy Holly, Kurt Cobain and many others; or London based Kiwi Garth Cartwright’s Greyhound bus odyssey into the American blues heartland More Miles Than Money. du Fresne’s book is more like Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America – an irreverent collection of wanderings and musings, held together by a lose plan and a good eye for obscure details. None of which du Fresne has ever read, he says. “Which is a good thing because I got to approach it as a blank canvas.” We both agree that given the format and approach, this would make a great documentary series, NZ On Air Are you listening? It’s a slightly rambling fact filled trip with a few good meals and a coupla excellent craft beers to wash them down.
When’s the Kiwi version of this book coming out, I ask? “Funny you ask. I’ve had various exchanges with Max Cryer about this very thing. I’d written a piece for the Listener about my book and he got in touch. There’s indications he may be doing this. There are classics like the Mutton Bird’sDominion Rd.; Otaki By the Falls; I’ve Been Every Where, Man (John Hore Grenell’s version), Taumaranui by the May Trunk Line; and so on. Of, course with a New Zealand book it doesn’t have those romantic mythological associations that America has.” So that was the appeal for du Fresne. So with the exception of Dwight Yokam’sStreets of Bakersfield (1988), which only made it because it was on the way to the next location, most of these songs come from the era of Rock’n’Roll – the 1950’s and 60’s. “Well that was my era. I heard it once that the songs you hear in your youth are what you’ll grow up with thinking are the greatest songs – ever. I think that’s pretty true. I think the 50’s was the best era of music. But someone growing up in the post-punk 80’s would say the same thing of Flying Nun, or disco. It’s what you heard at that time of your life. Everything’s very vivid at that time of your life.”du Fresne grew up in Hawke’s Bay, ears glued to the radio. He’d tune in to the Lever Brothers Hit Parade and the Sunday request session on Station 2ZC. At a tender young age he first heard Perry Como’s “excruciatingly bad puns” on the song Delaware(1959):
‘Oh, what did Delaware boy what did Delaware? What did Delaware boy, what did Delaware? She wore a brand New Jersey, she wore a brand New Jersey She wore a brand New Jersey, that’s what she did wear ‘
“It was a pretty awful song, typical of the kind of song at the time. Cheesy and cheerful. But it got me thinking about somewhere outside my own gate. It kind of melted into the memory.” A few years back that Como song inspired du Fresne to think about the other great American place-name songs – Jackson, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Do You know the Way to San Jose’, 24 Hours to Tulsa, Bowling Green – and what those places were really like. I had pictures in my head. I wanted to hold up those imagined post cards and see if they were true.” It was that desire that eventually became the three trips that he lays out in his ” travel book about music and a musical book about travel”.
Each chapter is devoted to a specific hit song and the town that inspired it. Songs like Fat’s Domino’s Walking to New Orleans (1960) or Glenn Cambell’s Galveston, home of the song’s writer Jimmy Webb. du Fresne describes the town, as he does for many on the trip from a dashboard point of view. They roll in to town in a rented Winnebago past the 1900 Galveston Hurricane memorial and the 5.2-metre-high sea wall which protects the city from future disasters.
Galveston never fully recovered from the natural disasters of the early 20th century and was further hurt by the port built at Houston that took away much of its freight business. It’s the kind of insight that paints a backdrop to the song and explains it’s mood and atmosphere perfectly, du Fresne explains. “It takes on a different life when you know more about the town.”
On Marty Robbin’s El Paso, which he also visits, describing the contrast between a sleepy boarder town and the former Mexican murder capital, Ciudad Juárez, just across the tracks, there’s talk of a cantina – Rosa’s. du Fresne actually ate there. His photo shows an archetypical run down shack, exactly as you’d picture it in the song. But, he notes, behind the façade it’s classier. Good food, too. “Mexican, is delicious, very healthy. I loved it. Not grungy like those old CC’s adverts on the telly.” Apparently writer Marty Robbins was on a bus passing through the town when he was writing the song. He was struggling for a place to position his main character when he saw the cantina out of the window and hit upon the concept. “An Rosa’s was put down in history:
‘Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina Music would play and Felina would whirl’ “
Interestingly, du Fresne points out, that not many great songs came out of places like Pennsylvania, Minnesota or Indiana. It all seems to have originated from the South in the 50’s. The discovery of black music by white people. “Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas – they are incredibly musical states. You can’t go there and not be aware of how important music is.”
du Fresne went through New Orleans not long after the recovery from Katrina got started. His observations in his three days tell you much about a city that’s trying to rebuild itself – much like many parts of America. Given the racial issue in today’s new coming out of the states he visited I have to ask if it was noticeable to him as a traveler.
“Yes, and no he replies. You expect plenty of crazies and extremes in America because that’ what you see on TV. But on the whole everyone was so helpful, gentle and kind. I didn’t see any racial riots or issues like that. On the other side though there are big suburbs in Louisiana with grand old ladies (houses) on one side, in leafy streets, and ghettos and shacks downtown. Who lives there is pretty clear, so the problems are there.”
Given that many of the towns he visited were in the ‘armpit of America’, as a glamorous lady on his plane described it as, and way off the tourist track did he find any places that delivered something considerably different to his expectations?
“Yes. One of the songs was Everly Brothers’Bowling Green, a bit of a flop for them, I think.It’s in Kentucky. I had this really idyllic picture in my mind of that town…many, like you say were like the set of The Dukes of Hazard, with a green square in the middle, white courthouse, malt shop, band rotunda in the middle…we saw plenty of those town … I went with high hopes but found that it really wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined.” In fact, he noted that this was a town dying fast. “Everything was pleasant in its decay”.
On the other hand, Mendocino, (North California) as recorded in the song by Sir Douglas Quintet (1969) was “like a movie set: The Northern California coast is very rugged, wild seas and sheer cliffs, as well as forested mountains behind. And there’s a tiny town (Mendocino) clinging to the cliffs. It was a hippy retreat in the early 1960s.” The song’s composer Doug Sahm was there at the time and was inspired by the location. to wrote the song, got to know the place.”
Of course not all the song titles were inspired by actual people place or events. Jackson, made famous by Johnny Cash(1967) and later Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood (1967), was simply a good name for the feeling, apparently. As was the 24 Hours From Tulsa, which could have been 24 hours from any town, really. But it didn’t stop du Fresne having a peek anyway.
Finally, I have to as if they, as a pair of Kiwi travellers off the main trail caused any stirs. “We got to the information office in Saginaw, Michigan (from the song by Lefty Frizzell -1964). The lady behind counter was floored – we were probably the first people she’d seen there for months, if not years. Apparently, none there and she was astonished that someone from the other side of the globe was standing in front of her.” Ah, travel – and music – broadens the mind. “You should try it sometime.” I might just do that. Although I think it’ll be with Grunge and Hard-core as my guiding map. “You’re welcome to that. Give me rock’n’roll any day!”
A Road Trip of American Songs is published by Bateman on 15 July 2016, RRP $39.99.